So what’s the big deal about native plants? Why are so many Americans choosing to plant natives in their landscapes? Why are native plants so important to the survival of so many insects and other wildlife? The answer is simple, but not an easy one to digest. So let me start off by saying that when I think about native plants, I think about BBQ. I know what you’re thinking, but before you dismiss my comparison… give me a chance to explain.
We live in the Kansas City area, so BBQ is a way of life. We love everything about it. The smells, the flavors, the preparation, and the competition. We each have our favorite BBQ joints and closely guarded recipes. We debate over sauce and rub and which meat is the best. But after all is said and done, the one thing that remains is that we all agree that KC BBQ is the best. It’s sweet and smokey and simply amazing… everything you could ever want! However, Kansas City BBQ is not the only BBQ out there. There are other types, with each one having their own unique style, flavor, ingredients, and regional following. Whether we’re talking about Carolina, Kansas City, Memphis, Texas, or the many other styles of BBQ, each type is passionately loved by the masses who identify with its culture and tradition. Some simply might say it’s all just BBQ, but to overgeneralize something so tied to tradition and location, means we lose the roots from which each style comes. It’s more than just BBQ, its a regional fingerprint that perfectly fits its past and its people.
It’s the same way with plants. Each type of plant fits into a region where it connects with other species to create a living community. As we start to identify each of the living species, or “ingredients” within this living community, we begin to notice a regional recipe. It’s in these where we begin to understand not only how each region is unique, but also allows us to see the significant role that each species plays. The regional recipes help define the habitats and ecosystems from which insects and animals find their food, raise their young, and make their homes. Just as BBQ has regional styles that are made unique by their ingredients, native plants are the main ingredients that help set each region apart from the others.
For decades, we have been adding plants to our gardens and landscapes that are not part of the regional recipe in which they are located. It’s not that these nonnative plants are bad, but when we add too many of them, and not enough of our natives, the regional recipe changes. If we are not paying attention, the recipe can change so much that we begin to lose the regional identity and often times lose species as well. A perfect example of this is the Milkweed plant and the Monarch butterfly. Due to our farming, gardening, and landscape practices and choices, we have changed the Central & Midwestern regional recipes to the point where Milkweed plants have become scarce. The Monarch butterfly is directly impacted by the loss and as a result their population has faced a staggering decline.
The bottom line is this… each species of insect relies upon certain types of plants to survive. Without these plants, these insects wouldn’t be around to feed the many bird and mammal species that rely upon them. So, it all points back to the plants, the ingredients, that make up the regional recipes. For it’s the regional recipes that combine and connect everything together in their own unique ways. It’s when we go back to the roots, the original regional recipes, that we can find just the right ingredients to make each distinct ecosystem come alive. That’s our goal… to plant the native trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses that will help return our outdoor spaces to their original regional recipes. Who’s with me?
– Jay Parsons
* Photo – A newly emerged Monarch butterfly resting on Common Milkweed after we tagged and released it in our backyard. Preparing some pork ribs for a BBQ competition we participated in. (October, 2016)